Connect with us

Culture

Toronto tall tales of Zach Edey: On the ice, the diamond … and 'What's a Purdue?'

Published

on

Toronto tall tales of Zach Edey: On the ice, the diamond … and 'What's a Purdue?'

TORONTO – Head north out of downtown on Bayview Avenue and past the shops and bars in Leaside, plus four Tim Hortons. Cross a bridge and climb a hill and there’s Crescent School, a private all-boys institution opened in 1913. It’s closed for winter break, but a courtyard plaque points to reception. A groundskeeping vehicle is parked in front and a delivery guy walks out. Somewhere inside lies another story about how the impossibility of Zach Edey came to be. Another tall tale.

So it’s worth a knock on the door.

After an introduction to Sal the maintenance guy and an explanation for the visit, it’s a stroll down some stairs and into the Lower School. Pencil sketches and old team pictures hang in the hallway. Straight ahead? A basketball gym. Where an anomaly came into view.

Edey is, of course, currently the 7-foot-4, 300-pound All-American anchor for second-ranked Purdue. But he’s also the kid who dreamed of being a hockey defenseman. The preteen who stumbled into a stellar youth baseball career. The high school sophomore who learned basketball shooting form by balancing a water bottle on a clipboard. The quiet Toronto boy who left home for an academy in Florida, who ranked 436th in his recruiting class and who now likely will repeat as national player of the year. The star who should not be.

Here, in a space with green bleachers and the words RESPECT, RESPONSIBILITY and HONESTY ringing the floor, is where the last part started.

Advertisement

Edey’s local club team was practicing at Crescent School, right before a tryout for the high-profile Northern Kings AAU program. Vidal Massiah, the Kings’ director, had been tipped off by his sister about a giant roaming area courts, and Massiah came to see for himself. After Edey’s two ensuing workouts with the Kings, his mother asked for a verdict. Massiah was blunt.

He’s an NBA player. Get ready for this movie.

“His story is a Canadian story,” Massiah says, driving away from the school on a sunny but wind-whipped winter morning. “It only happens here.”

Chapter 1: On the ice

Chesswood Arena sits in an industrial park in North York, abutting train tracks and sharing a parking lot with a garage door company and luggage wholesalers, among others. It was built in the 1950s. Still looks like it, too, and gloriously so. Weather and time have stripped away most of the color on a tower sign next to the entrance. The building marquee itself features three rows of hand-set letters.

WELCO ME TOCHESSWOODARENA, the top row reads.

Advertisement

This is the home of the top-level, triple-A Toronto Red Wings youth hockey program – “A tradition since 1955,” according to a banner – but it contains four NHL-sized rinks with ads for Dr. Flea’s Flea Market and Little Pearls pediatric dentistry. Golden Glide Hockey operates from a modest space tucked next to a synthetic ice surface on the second floor. Sometime in 2010, word arrived about a massive 8-year-old kid playing house league hockey in Leaside. He was raw, but no one could get around him. Al Rourke, a former NHL defenseman coaching the Toronto Penguins team via Golden Glide, said to bring the kid out for a look.

In walked Zach Edey, a shade under 6 feet at the time. “I said right away, ‘You’re on the team,’” Rourke says, sitting at a desk with a wall of Post-it notes to his left. “I also told his parents, ‘You should put a basketball in his hands.’”

Not a directive young Toronto boys follow easily. Coach, he loves hockey, is all Rourke heard from Julia and Glen Edey. He shrugged. The kid was polite. Always on time. And while he probably wasn’t quick enough for triple-A competition, Zach Edey was plenty good at double-A, if only because a very long arm held a very long stick and could stop a rush with one poke.

So he was a hockey player. Who scared everyone.


Zach Edey was taller than his coaches even as a preteen. (Courtesy of Julia Edey via Purdue)

By Edey’s third year, he was taller than his 30-something coach, and that was before lacing up skates. “They see him walk in, and other teams would be like, ‘What is happening? We gotta play against this guy?’” Rourke says. Size, though, became more of a source of humor or frustration than an asset. Early on, Glen Edey asked Rourke, who was listed as a 6-2, 215-pound blueliner during his playing days, if he had any old skates he could pass down, since Zach was already in men’s sizes. Rourke brought in a top-end pair, and the next day, Glen returned them.

Advertisement

“Al, he can’t wear these,” Zach’s father told the coach.

“Glen, these are professional skates,” Rourke replied. “These are good f—— skates.”

That wasn’t it, Glen assured him. “They don’t fit.”

Likewise, Edey’s elbows weren’t where most people’s elbows were. So while Rourke coached Edey to keep his arms tight and ride an offensive player off the puck – checking wasn’t permitted yet when Edey started with the Penguins – the slightest flinch meant connecting with an opponent’s head and a trip to the penalty box. “Even if a kid runs into him, he’d get a penalty for elbowing or interference or something stupid when it’s not his fault,” Rourke says. “He’s just way bigger.”

But if you’re looking for reasons Edey has uncommon skill and so swiftly picked up the pace on the court, maybe start on the ice. “You got all this stuff going on and you have guys trying to knock your head off at the same time,” says Steve Taylor, one of Edey’s close friends’ father, who coached both boys in middle-school club hockey. “Comparatively speaking, hockey feels way more frenzied. … And, physically, the lower-body strength along with the coordination – I don’t think there’s anything you could do that’s better (training).”

Advertisement

Baseball soon became the next dominant passion, and though Edey continued to play some hockey, he mostly outgrew it – though not before one memorable shift.

One night, the Penguins’ starting goalie was sick. So Rourke dispatched Zach Edey into the net against the best double-A team in the area. He gave up six or seven scores, as his coach recalls, though watching Edey drop into a butterfly, with pucks careening off him, still gives Rourke a chuckle.

He notes, in fact, that NHL rules permit goalies of a certain size to wear larger and bulkier gear. “Imagine him in a net right now?” Rourke says. “Wouldn’t be a bad play.”

Chapter 2: On the diamond

The Edeys arrived for a youth soccer event to find 80 or 90 baseball players scattered about Oriole Park, a small collection of tennis courts and playgrounds with one dirt diamond. This was a tryout for North Toronto travel baseball, looking to fill three new entry-level teams. To bide time, the family sat at a picnic table in deep right field. They were out of the way but not enough to go unnoticed. Soon, one of the baseball parent-coaches running the workout jogged over and inquired about the boy who looked a foot taller than everyone else.

Zach Edey was, in fact, 8.

Advertisement

“Your kid is playing baseball,” Jeff Wolburg declared.

No, no, Julia Edey insisted. They were there for soccer.

Wolburg was unmoved. He coaxed Zach into joining his group, handed him a glove and ran Edey through drills for the next two or three hours. It was the first time Edey played the sport. Wolburg put him on the 8U roster anyway. The Edeys once again protested. After three or four days of phone calls, Wolburg’s buying the kid a jersey with his name on it and promising Glen Edey an assistant coaching spot, the family relented. North Toronto had a new first baseman. Who showed up at tryouts planning to play soccer. “And five years later, (Julia) always came back to that one story,” Wolburg recalls. “‘You brought me into this life!’”


Zach Edey showed up for a soccer tryout but found himself on a baseball team. (Courtesy of Julia Edey via Purdue)

A limited future on the ice made hockey fairly easy to leave behind. But Zach Edey was good at baseball. Really good. By the time he was competing for the Leaside Leafs as a 13- and 14-year-old, he was throwing 70 to 75 miles per hour and occasionally launching balls over the left field fence at Talbot Park and onto bustling Eglinton Avenue. Playing college baseball in the United States wasn’t a wild fantasy.

When Edey stopped at the 15U level, Wolburg thought it was a mistake. “He was a very shy, introverted kid, and baseball brought out a different side of him,” Wolburg says. “It was like a different life. Going to school, nobody would talk to him, he’d be reading in the corner somewhere. But playing sports? In baseball, he was on just a crazy upward scale of getting better and better. He loved that feeling of hitting. This giant kid, just smashing the s— out of the ball.”

Advertisement

He also admits he hadn’t been paying attention to the other sport entering Edey’s life.

The boy, it turns out, had another foot to grow. And someone finally put a basketball in his hands.

Baseball, then, was a dress rehearsal for what came after on the court: Rudimentary instruction and a growth curve accelerated by Edey’s underrated athleticism and unrelenting curiosity.

He was planted at first base due to his preposterous wing span and an easy task: Catch everything. At the plate, his instructions were similarly plain: Crush the ball. There was plenty of swing-and-miss, particularly with a bat path that was more like taking an ax to a tree stump. But woe to those on the field when Edey connected.

“He probably injured, I’d say, 15 kids along the way,” Wolburg says. “Not on purpose, obviously. They just got in the way. If they didn’t catch the ball cleanly, it would hit them in the knee or the chest or sometimes the head. And it would hurt.”

Advertisement

Refinement came with age and an inquisitive mind. “His baseball IQ was top of the charts,” Wolburg says. On the mound, that meant less reliance strictly on fastballs and exploring how to get more spin on pitches and how to throw a proper changeup. Edey took hitting lessons from a premier local instructor. He was devoted to a future on the diamond. His size, essentially, detoured him again. But not before everyone could see who Zach Edey might be. While he plays college basketball with a mercilessness– and while it serves him and Purdue well – there’s a gentility at his core, too.

During one 12U baseball game, Edey drilled a batter in the arm. The kid dropped to the dirt in agony. Coaches and parents rushed to his aid.

After 10 minutes or so, the umpire approached Wolburg.

“Coach,” he said, “you had better go look at the mound.”

Wolburg turned. Zach Edey was sitting in the dirt, crying his eyes out.

Advertisement

“He was upset for days after that,” Wolburg says.

Chapter 3: On the court

Before ninth grade, Magnus Taylor decided he wanted to play basketball. Steve Taylor, who played some university-level hoops himself, was thrilled by his son’s news. Thus the North Toronto Huskies were breathed into life. There was one imperative, though: They had to get Magnus’ good friend Zach.

For about 30 or 40 minutes one afternoon, Steve Taylor sat with his son and the extremely large human they’d known since preschool and explained the plan. He asked Zach Edey if he’d like to join his team.

Edey said no.

The next fall, with another season approaching, and with Edey having dabbled in high school hoops, Taylor revisited the conversation. The pitch lasted about an hour. He invited Edey. Again.

Advertisement

Edey said no. Again.

This time? Taylor had a backup idea. He suggested Edey join a Huskies practice, if only to get in shape for baseball. Edey agreed. Taylor told his wife to find the largest available jersey and order it. He picked up Edey and drove him to his first workout with the Huskies, on a Tuesday night at Crescent School. It happened to be a night the regular players were … not great. Taylor lost his patience. He ran his team. Hard. At one point, he looked over at the giant teenager galloping from end to end and gasping for air and it occurred to him: I blew it.

Halfway through the drive home, crammed into the passenger seat of an Audi, Edey delivered his review.

These basketball practices? Way more fun than baseball practices.

Two nights later, Edey stood on the Taylors’ porch, ready to go.

Advertisement

“We had to almost trick him into it, but once he got the bug, man, he never looked back,” Taylor says. “It says a lot about him, too – we ran the kids into the ground that Tuesday night. And he never complained. … He saw he had work to do, and he started doing the work.”

Edey had to learn proper basketball, all the way down to balancing that water bottle on a clipboard for 10 minutes before practices, to get his elbow cocked correctly. But there’s growth, and there are beanstalks shooting through clouds. Edey fixed a right-to-left swipe on his follow-through in one workout. He played in a country-wide All-Star game by December.

Moving Edey from a club hoops startup into a youth basketball flume required only a couple more twists: Vidal Massiah’s sister showed up for her son Elijah’s high school game. She saw a monstrous Leaside High center at the free-throw line. She snapped a picture and sent it to her brother. After the game, Massiah’s other nephew, Ethan, collected Edey’s contact info. “My uncle is going to help you a lot,” Ethan told him.


Last year’s national player of the year began playing organized basketball in high school. (Photo courtesy of Julia Edey via Purdue)

Once the Edeys returned the calls, the assistant coaches headed out to scout. Their feedback was the same: They just weren’t sure.

“No one saw it,” Massiah says.

Advertisement

Then the Northern Stars director walked into the Crescent School gym. He sat with Glen Edey in the bleachers and probed a man-child’s athletic history. He watched a neophyte change ends well for his size. He saw a patient approach at the free-throw line and surprising touch for a kid whose experience could be measured in months. He thought about the time he guarded Yao Ming.

He asked himself: What will this look like in a couple years?

“All the positives were more in the vein of, he’s an athlete, at the end of the day,” Massiah says. “He doesn’t have these particular skills because he hasn’t trained in this sport. That was it. It was easy to understand. The skills can be taught.”

Edey split time with the two club teams – Taylor knew the Kings would provide exposure he couldn’t – and it was another beginning. Edey had to relearn things in the context of highly competitive basketball with highly skilled teammates.

The Kings coaches started with passing, because they knew defenders would be flying at Edey and he had to be confident in his decisions. His offensive repertoire was limited to working from the left block and going to his right hand; if he was on the right block, he wasn’t getting the ball.

Advertisement

To understand defensive timing, Edey analogized it to the angles he’d take as a hockey defenseman, and Massiah nodded along. “That’s what this is,” the coach replied, emphasizing how Edey had to beat opponents to spots to recover without fouling. By Edey’s second year, he understood the offense thoroughly enough that the Kings ran sets through him. “His ability to process information and implement coaching was through the roof,” Massiah says. “Every question was a good question.”

Days before Canada Basketball convened a 2018 tryout for its world championship teams, Michael Meeks received a text message. Massiah had a really tall kid the organization had to see, which was truer than he knew: Meeks, an assistant general manager for sports performance, had been looking for Zach Edey for a while. He’d walk into a gym and miss the kid by an hour, or pick the wrong day to see a game. But now here the myth was, in the flesh, at last.

“I’m like, ‘It’s the unicorn,’” Meeks says.

Edey was far too raw to make a roster. But the first impression was a thunderbolt. “One thing I immediately saw, that put him way ahead of even tall kids his age, was his hands,” Meeks says. “He had the softest touch around the basket. His form looked great. He didn’t mind contact. I knew then he was going to be special. Like, special.”

Zach Edey wouldn’t be that hard to find, ever again.

Advertisement

He left the low ceiling of Leaside basketball behind and enrolled at IMG Academy in 2018. He went from the B team to consensus All-American and national college player of the year in five seasons. He might be a first-round NBA Draft pick after six, having backed up his breakout junior year by averaging 23.7 points and 11.8 rebounds and, as of Monday, leading the nation in Win Shares (7.2) on a Final Four contender. Given that Team Canada has qualified for the Summer Olympics,  Edey is a decent bet to be in Paris if whatever pro franchise drafts him is amenable. Everyone is running out of questions.

There’s just one more worth reliving, as he moves front and center for one more run at deliverance in March.

As Edey’s basketball future crystallized, his coaches discussed possible American college destinations. Massiah brought up a school in the Midwest with a long history of developing big men.

Purdue, Massiah suggested, could be an ideal fit.

As usual, Zach Edey wanted more info.

Advertisement

“What’s a Purdue?” he asked.

(Illustration: Daniel Goldfarb / The Athletic; photos: Jeffrey Brown / Icon Sportswire; courtesy of Julia Edey via Purdue)

Culture

How hockey helped make J.J. McCarthy one of NFL Draft's most intriguing prospects

Published

on

How hockey helped make J.J. McCarthy one of NFL Draft's most intriguing prospects

Dan Capuano’s funeral at St. Rita of Cascia High School on Chicago’s Southwest Side was standing-room only. Hundreds of firefighters from Chicago and around the country attended. Members of the St. Jude Knights youth hockey club were there, too, wearing their jerseys.

Capuano’s sons, Andrew and Nick, played for the Knights, a Northern Illinois Hockey League program that feeds many of Chicago’s powerhouse Catholic schools. Nick was on the 2012-13 team that won the Squirt A state championship.

Dan had devoted much of his time to the Knights before he died in the line of duty while fighting a warehouse fire on the South Side on Dec. 14, 2015.

That title-winning Knights team wanted to get back together to honor Capuano and his family, so in March 2016, a new team was formed. “Team Capuano” would play in the Shamrock Shuffle at the University of Notre Dame over a weekend. Their jerseys would be red and white and include Dan’s badge number: 1676.

There was an early hiccup. “The guy that was running the tournament, he didn’t want to let us in,” said Ralph Lawrence, a former St. Jude coach. “He said that the competition would be way too high.”

Advertisement

Team Capuano just wanted to play together again. It got in. Things got chippy. During one game, a hit from behind sent center Luke Lawrence, Ralph’s son, hard into the boards.

“Could have paralyzed him,” Ralph said. “It was a bad hit.”

That’s when 13-year-old wing J.J. McCarthy rushed in. The future five-star recruit, Michigan quarterback, national champion and soon-to-be NFL draft pick was livid. He didn’t drop his gloves, but a scrum ensued.

“It was a little cheap hit in the corner,” Luke said. “J.J. was the first one to me, come into the corner and exchange a few words with the kid.”

“J.J. went off on the kid and got kicked out of the game,” Ralph said.

Advertisement

The whole scene was unlike McCarthy. He was typically more collected on the ice — his father, Jim, one of the primary organizers of Team Capuano, didn’t like the outburst — but Luke was J.J.’s close friend, and the tournament was an emotional experience. And in hockey, leadership often involves going into the corners.

“Those kids played for something more than hockey that weekend,” Ralph said.

When it was over, Team Capuano — the team some thought didn’t belong in South Bend — won the tournament. A year later, they returned and repeated as champions.


Ice is in McCarthy’s blood. His mother, Megan, was a competitive figure skater. He started playing hockey in kindergarten. Organized football came later.

McCarthy is on record calling hockey his first love. What he experienced on the ice would ultimately help make him a better quarterback — one now on the verge of being drafted in the first round.

Advertisement

He was 10 when the Knights defeated Winnetka in the Tier II Squirt A state championship in March 2013. He and Luke Lawrence assisted on the only goal of the game. It was a special season for a special group, one that eventually split up as players changed teams and levels.


McCarthy (far right) got used to winning early as part of a championship squad with the St. Jude Knights. (Courtesy of Ralph Lawrence)

McCarthy and Lawrence were inseparable for years. Competitive in everything, they played so much and so well together on the same line that they earned a nickname referencing Henrik and Daniel Sedin, the twin stars from the Vancouver Canucks.

The Lawrences and McCarthys stopped at Dunkin’ Donuts before practices or games. The dads would get coffee. Luke would get a bagel or a banana. McCarthy always ordered a strawberry frosted donut. Ralph Lawerence advised against the pre-skate pastry, but it became McCarthy’s go-to. (After McCarthy signed an NIL deal at Michigan, a medium iced coffee and a strawberry frosted donut became his official Dunkin’ Donuts meal in the Detroit area.)

“We laugh till this day,” Ralph said. “And it didn’t hurt him. His speed was fine. His stomach didn’t get upset.”

As a coach, Lawrence emphasized playing positionally strong in the neutral zone and the importance of forechecking and backchecking. But McCarthy played the game with feel.

Advertisement

“He knew where the puck was going to be,” Ralph said. “He knew what the other team was going to do.”

As Lawrence watched McCarthy play football, he saw similar things happen on the field.

“He had an instinct,” Lawrence said. “It was the same way he had it on the ice.”

McCarthy and Lawrence moved on to the Northern Express, another Tier II team that played in the Central States Development Hockey League, which expanded outside of Illinois. It was time for a new challenge.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been as excited as a coach,” Northern Express coach Brent Dolan said.

Advertisement

Dolan’s team excelled defensively. The team’s forecheck was relentless, but it didn’t score a lot.

“When J.J. and Luke came, that instantly changed,” Dolan said. “I would say our goals per game went up by two — and that’s massive in hockey.”

Checking was now permitted, too. There would be contact and a lot of it, a new and different level of physicality. McCarthy could give hits, take hits — and avoid them. The extra contact also meant extracurriculars, and McCarthy had no problem mixing it up.

“If I needed anything or if I was getting banged up in the corner, J.J.’s always there for me, getting in there and making sure that nothing’s gonna escalate,” Luke said. “He would always stick up for me.”


By the time he hung up his skates, McCarthy had developed into a fast, physical forward. (Courtesy of Ted Eagle)

Hockey requires quick decision-making under duress and amid contact. For McCarthy, as a forward, that often meant receiving the puck while exiting his own zone and deciding what to do as an opposing defenseman barreled his way.

Advertisement

Pass the puck quickly to a teammate? Make a quick cut around the defenseman? Chip the puck past the opponent and go after it?

“People who don’t play hockey don’t really understand how fast of a sport it is and how many different components go into it,” Dolan said. “You have to make a decision with the puck, and you got to know where to go with it and execute that all in a split second. That’s not overexaggerating it. That probably helped J.J.’s vision in football.”

A shift on the ice can feel like standing in the pocket: chaos everywhere, violence nearby. You have to see it — or, more importantly, feel it — to overcome it. McCarthy, who was on Northern Express’ power play, had the poise and spatial awareness to operate in the maelstrom.

“Hockey definitely slowed down football,” Luke Lawrence said.

In particular, McCarthy developed a Patrick Kane-like knack for avoiding major hits. Dolan later saw him make hockey-like cuts playing for Michigan.

Advertisement

“He’s trying to avoid getting drilled,” Dolan said. “The quick, subtle movements that you make in hockey probably helped him in the pocket and then also while he’s out on the edge rushing or scrambling.”

In the summer between seventh and eighth grade, McCarthy started training with Greg Holcomb, a private QB coach from Next Level Athletix. Holcomb saw a lot of natural ability. He also saw hockey’s influence.

“One of the reasons why he was so good at throwing off platform and moving around and changing direction is probably because in hockey he would get absolutely killed if he wasn’t able to skate past guys or make them miss,” Holcomb said. “Hockey definitely helped him.”


The first game of McCarthy’s final hockey season came, fittingly enough, at Yost Ice Arena on the University of Michigan campus.

Advertisement

He was playing for the 14-and-under Chicago Young Americans, a Tier I team, during his freshman year at Nazareth Academy high school. McCarthy had always been talented enough to play at the highest level of youth hockey, but football overlapped with hockey too much, especially on the weekends.

CYA coach Ted Eagle didn’t mind the conflict because of who McCarthy was.

McCarthy had good hands and a quick release. He played hard, generated turnovers and scored. “He was a beast in hockey,” Eagle said. “He threw the body around and he wasn’t kind of this less skilled, bigger guy. He was just fast and physical.”

And he was a spark — a tone-setter. In hockey, you need that.

“I relied on him, too,” Eagle said. “It kind of sets the tone for the rest of the team when one or two guys are kind of pushing the pace.”

Advertisement
go-deeper

GO DEEPER

J.J. McCarthy’s draft ceiling: What film shows about Michigan QB’s NFL potential

McCarthy missed the first game of the tournament at Michigan because of a Nazareth football game then showed up in the first period of their second game against the Pittsburgh Penguins Elite junior team. Eagle considers it one of his favorite hockey memories. “He raced up, and he showed up mid-game and scored a couple of goals against one of the top teams in the country,” Eagle said.

There were three hockey practices every week, mostly after football practice, which resulted in some very late nights for a high school freshman. And there were the out-of-town games missed because of football games on Friday nights or Saturday mornings. CYA would play nearly 70 games that season, many that required travel, and McCarthy made more than 40 of them, according to Eagle.

The back-and-forth between football and hockey required discipline, but McCarthy was different. Eagle described him as a “front-of-the-line guy” in practice. He paid attention to the smallest details, asked plenty of questions, talked through different scenarios. Eagle said McCarthy craved the information to get better. Teammates were drawn to him.

“I’m sure a lot of people are aware of this by now,” Eagle said, “but he was just like an ultimate leader.”

Advertisement

McCarthy hung up his skates after his freshman year of high school to focus on football. During his sophomore season the next year — and just days before Illinois’ Class 7A state championship game in 2018 — McCarthy’s throwing hand collided with a defensive lineman’s helmet as he released a pass.

“As a quarterback, it’s the kiss of death,” said Brody Budmayr, Nazareth’s former quarterbacks coach.

Everything stopped. McCarthy was in pain — serious, excruciating pain. After a few nervous moments, the sophomore starter with Division-I interest wanted to test his hand. He dropped back to pass, and then …

“It’s just the pain and anguish of you know it’s broke,” Budmayr said. “It’s him actually dropping to his knees and us thinking, ‘Wow, this is not good.’”

But there was no way he was missing Nazareth’s state championship game against St. Charles North. His parents found an orthopedic surgeon to work on Thanksgiving, and playing became a matter of pain tolerance.

Advertisement

That wasn’t a problem. McCarthy was a hockey player.

In the state championship game, McCarthy was 15-for-21 passing for 201 yards and a touchdown as Nazareth dominated 31-10. A legend was born.

“Ultimately, he was the one that had to go out there,” Budmayr said. “He taped it up and he led us to a state championship.”


McCarthy’s hockey coaches are convinced his experience on the ice informed his play on the gridiron. (Gregory Shamus / Getty Images)

On May 11, 2019, McCarthy announced he was committing to Michigan and coach Jim Harbaugh. During the recruiting process, Nazareth head coach Tim Racki told the story about McCarthy and his broken thumb.

“When I told him he was a hockey player, (Harbaugh’s) eyes lit up,” Racki said. “And then when I told him that story, that sealed the deal in terms of the kid’s toughness and the grit that he had.”

Advertisement

When McCarthy announced his college decision on social media, he thanked three hockey coaches — Lawrence, Dolan and Eagle — for allowing him to play both sports together.

“I would not be where I am without having had hockey in my life,” he wrote.

(Illustration: Sean Reilly / The Athletic; photos: courtesy of Ted Eagle, Scott Taetsch / Getty Images

Advertisement
Continue Reading

Culture

Anonymous NBA player poll 2024: LeBron or Jordan for GOAT? Most overrated? Finals favorite?

Published

on

Anonymous NBA player poll 2024: LeBron or Jordan for GOAT? Most overrated? Finals favorite?

Sample size matters, people.

So when The Athletic launched its first NBA player poll in 2019, with 127 players answering questions about league matters so honestly because of the anonymity they were granted, the bar was set very high. We hit triple digits again last year (108 players), when the popular poll returned in full force after a COVID-19-induced hiatus because of limited locker room access for reporters during that time.

This time around, with familiar topics like MVP, “most overrated,” “player you’d least like to fight” and the referees to discuss, as well as new debates over the 65-game rule and the commissioner’s letter grade, our NBA staff interviewed a whopping 142 players from March 5 through April 11. That’s nearly a third of the entire league, with unfiltered views of stars and role players alike. And yes, all 30 teams had a voice.

The Pulse Newsletter

Free, daily sports updates direct to your inbox. Sign up

Advertisement

Free, daily sports updates direct to your inbox. Sign up

BuyBuy The Pulse Newsletter

As is always the case, not every player answered every question. But the unprecedented participation means there are more opinions and insights than ever. There’s a bonus question, too, with players telling us which non-NBA player is their current favorite athlete (yes, as you might have imagined, Caitlin Clark received a few votes).

Away we go…

(Editor’s Note: In some cases, the combined percentages of all the answers to a question may not add up to 100 percent, because individual percentages have been rounded up or down to the nearest tenth of a percentage point.)


Here’s a not-so-bold prediction when it comes to the actual MVP race: Nikola Jokić is going to win it by a far more significant margin than the one you see above. This has been the trend with our polls, with players typically seeing it very differently from the 100 media members who vote on the award every year.

Advertisement

So while Jokić is considered the heavy front-runner, it should come as no surprise that Shai Gilgeous-Alexander came so close to taking the top honor here. And bear in mind, these votes were taken before Oklahoma City secured the top seed in the Western Conference on the last day of the regular season.

Luka Dončić was simply incredible down the season’s home stretch, but — like SGA — didn’t see his full body of work reflected in the polling because of the timing factor in the process.

Jokić voters

• “He’s Jokić. He affects the game in many ways that people just can’t understand — both offensively and defensively, honestly. His defense has gotten a lot better.”

• “He’s unstoppable.”

Advertisement

• “To be this effective the year after winning a championship, when it’s supposed to be harder, is impressive.”

• “Nikola Jokić is MVP. Consistent, still winning, still affecting the team in a number of ways. And it’s noticeable when he’s off the floor.”

• “He’s changed the game. His defense is underrated. He just knows the game so much.”

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

Hollinger: Why Joker is MVP again, Wemby is Rookie of the Year and more honors

SGA voters

Advertisement

• “No one expected the Thunder to be what they are this season, and he’s the head of that snake. And he’s consistent every single game — same numbers, and they’re incredible numbers. And he plays on both ends of the floor.”

• “I think he’s the most consistent No. 1 option on his team without a consistent helper. Like, there isn’t really a clear second superstar even though Jalen Williams is coming on as well. I think what he’s doing every game is the most impressive, and it translates into wins.”

• “Obviously, he’s scoring the ball. But the way he shares it and has his team involved is very unselfish. And I think he’s up there in steals as well (tied with Sacramento’s De’Aaron Fox for the league lead at two per game). And he’s been doing it all season long. …He’s just been really consistent in the style of play that he has. He’s just been dominating the game, and it’s not just points. It’s rebounds, assists, and he’s done a great job of leading that team over there.”

• “Underdog. Just with what OKC is doing, nobody would be mad if they were a 10 seed with their roster. If they were a 10 seed, nobody would be like, ‘Oh, they’re having a bad year.’ They’d be like, ‘They’re still rebuilding.’ … With what he’s doing, I think that’s my MVP.”


Advertisement

Victor Wembanyama said last month that his friend and fellow Frenchman Rudy Gobert would be a worthy winner of the 2023-24 NBA Defensive Player of the Year Award. But Wembanyama also added that, in future seasons, he, and not Gobert, would be the front-runner.

Their NBA peers, however, feel Wembanyama’s time has already arrived. Players voted the towering Spurs rookie as the league’s best defender right now.

Wembanyama led the league in blocks, averaging 3.58 per game. His next closest competitor, Utah’s Walker Kessler, recorded 2.41 blocks per game.

“He just makes it so hard to finish at the rim,” one opponent said of Wembanyama.

Another player said: “He’s changing the game. Players — you can’t say ‘scared’ — but he’s changing their shots. He deserves it.”

Advertisement

The Grizzlies certainly looked terrified in this three-on-one Wemby highlight that went viral earlier this month.

Gobert, who would join Dikembe Mutombo and Ben Wallace as the only four-time winners of the DPOY award if he wins it this season, finished fifth in our vote (6 percent). As you’ll see later on in this poll, this isn’t the last time Gobert is questioned by his peers.

Jrue Holiday, the top vote-getter by a wide margin in last year’s poll, placed second in the voting this year at 12.9 percent, barely trailing Wembanyama.

Wembanyama voter

Advertisement

“He really, like, affects everything in the paint. He has dudes not even trying to go to the rim. He damn near leads the league in blocks right now, and this is his first year. He’s doing it in limited time too.”

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

NBA award finalists 2024 revealed

Holiday voter

“I think guard defenders are more impressive because they’re on the ball all the time. As a big man, you make up mistakes by helping off your man. So it’s easier. Protecting the paint is somewhat easier than staying in front of the ball.”

Lu Dort voter

Advertisement

“(He) guards multiple positions, (is a) physical defender, guards without fouling — even when at the beginning of the season when the referees were calling fouls. Now, it helps him even more, because they’re not calling fouls.”


Wembanyama entered last year’s draft with enormous hype. The answers to this question once again demonstrate that, in the players’ eyes, the adulation was deserved.

“Some of the stuff he does offensively, the way he moves, it just looks so fluid,” one player said. “Just seeing him from afar, he’s playing the right way. He has the right principles. He’s focused on the right things. I like him.”

Wembanyama’s age factored into some of the players’ votes, as he turned 20 in January. Naturally, any team executive looking to build a title-contending team wants as long of a runway as possible.

Advertisement

“You can have him for 20 years,” one of the players said.

Another player who chose Wemby explained his vote like this: “The upside and at 20 years old, you can see that if he stays healthy and continues to get better, he can be a truly great player. I don’t want to put a ceiling on him.”

Jokić, on the other hand, is 29. So, it says something about how much his peers respect his game that so many of them still would make him their first signee even though he’s nearly one decade older than Wembanyama. Jokić is seven years older than Minnesota’s Anthony Edwards and four years older than Dončić.

Do you think Jokić faring so well is impressive? How about the fact that LeBron James is still getting votes in this young man’s category at the ripe old age of 39 (he’ll be 40 on Dec. 30). Ditto for Steph Curry, who turned 36 on March 14. The same can’t be said for 29-year-old Giannis Antetokounmpo, who won this category by a landslide in both 2019 (36.4 percent to Anthony Davis’ 10.4 percent) and 2023 (52.4 percent to Jokić’s 8.7 percent) but registered a measly 2.2 percent this time around.


Advertisement

There’s just something about Gobert’s game that his peers don’t like. Maybe the skepticism stems from a lack of playoff success, as none of Gobert’s teams have advanced to the conference finals. Or maybe it all traces back to the bubble in 2020 when the Clippers’ Terance Mann buried all those 3s over Gobert in the West semifinals and sparked serious scrutiny about the perceived limitations of the big man’s game.

Gobert has the elite résumé, though, with the three DPOY awards, three All-Star appearances, an All-NBA Second Team selection and three All-NBA Third Team nods. He has the receipts from this season, as he was the indisputable anchor of a Minnesota defense that was the best in the league while Gobert finished second in rebounds (12.9) and sixth in blocks (2.1) on a team that came just two wins shy of earning the No. 1 seed in the West (it finished third). And as our resident Timberwolves expert Jon Krawczynski wrote in January, the truth about those Jazz teams was that their lack of perimeter defense was the real problem that was exposed in those playoffs. These Timberwolves don’t have that deficiency.

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

How a Brazilian coach is transforming Rudy Gobert into an offensive threat

Still, Gobert joins Draymond Green (2019) and Trae Young (2023) as the latest winner of this undesirable award.


Advertisement

Seven seasons in, Derrick White’s top claim to NBA fame is finishing 16th in the media’s 2018-19 Most Improved Player voting and being named to the 2022-23 NBA All-Defensive Second Team. Jalen Williams, in his second season, placed second in last season’s Rookie of the Year voting but was also routinely mistaken on opposing telecasts for the Thunder’s “other” Jaylin Williams. Both Jalen Williams and White were lightly recruited coming out of high school.

So yes, in other words, they’re very familiar with the experience of being underrated. And while both are receiving more acclaim, they’re not the ones commanding the brightest spotlight on their respective teams.

White plays in the shadows of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Kristaps Porziņģis and Holiday. Williams, meanwhile, is on a dynamic young Thunder team where Gilgeous-Alexander commands most of the spotlight alongside big man Chet Holmgren.

One of the players who voted for White said, “I say that every single day: He’s one of the most underrated players in the league. They talk about him more (now), but they still don’t talk about him enough.”

Said another: “(White) defends really well (and) does a little bit of everything on offense.”

Advertisement

It’s notable, too, that Gilgeous-Alexander finished fourth in the players’ most-underrated voting even though he’s a virtual lock to be an All-NBA First Team selection by the media for the second season in a row.

“I don’t know if you can even say it anymore because he’s starting to get his due, but from a players’ perspective, it doesn’t feel like it’s covered enough,” an SGA voter said. “But what Shai has done this year, just how his progression has gone … I don’t know if you can call him underrated, but it almost feels like how for all those years they were talking about Damian Lillard (during his Portland years), how he was kind of flying under the radar (because of Steph Curry). But if you asked players, (they would’ve said) he’s one of the best guards in the league, in the top two. So I’m starting to see some of that with how we’re talking about Shai.”


The legend of James Johnson grows yet again.

Not only is the 6-foot-7, 240-pound, 37-year-old tough guy now a three-time winner of this award, but he continues to inspire fear in his opponents despite playing in just nine games this season. The Pacers forward has been mostly out of sight, but he’s not out of mind.

Advertisement

As many players discussed, it’s Johnson’s formal training as an actual fighter that most concerns them. He previously said that he holds a 20-0 record as a kickboxer, is 7-0 in mixed martial arts fights and has a black belt in karate. His nickname is “Bloodsport.” Need we say more?

In a January podcast interview with former NBA player Ryan Hollins, Johnson shared his opinion that, with a year of training in ground defense, he could beat UFC heavyweight legend Jon Jones in a fight.

Here’s the best part of Johnson’s latest season, though: Johnson re-signed with Indiana just two days after the game ball kerfuffle between the Pacers and Bucks on Dec. 13. Johnson had been available all season long, but the Pacers just so happened to come calling for him to return after that wild night in which Antetokounmpo gave them all the Big Brother treatment.

Johnson has been on board ever since, with a brief interruption for paperwork purposes. Indiana had to waive him to complete the Pascal Siakam trade with Toronto on Jan. 17 but signed him to a 10-day contract two days later before signing him for the rest of the season.

“He can actually fight,” one player said. “He’s different. He’s crazy. He’s one of those where you won’t win, but if you do win, you’ll have to kill him.”

Another player said: “Is he still in the league? He’s a triple black belt. I’m not f—ing with James. There’s other guys (where) I might actually lose the fight, but I’m not f—ng with James. He might kick me in my head.”

One of Johnson’s former teammates said: “J.J. is actually the coolest dude ever. He’s super cool. I just know his reputation. I know if you mess with him, it can get like that. But he’s one of my favorite teammates that I’ve had.”

Advertisement

Speaking of consistency in this category, Steven Adams (6-11, 250) takes second place behind Johnson for the third consecutive time. The Houston Rockets big man hasn’t played since Jan. 22, 2023, when he suffered a posterior cruciate ligament sprain in his right knee that would later require surgery. But like Johnson, the intimidation factor remains.

“(Adams) knows all the MMA stuff, and he can get you in a chokehold real quick,” one Adams voter said. “He’ll be nice with it, but he’ll choke you out and be like, ‘It’s OK, buddy.’”

And how’s this for a terrifying thought for Rockets opponents during an on-court melee? A healthy Adams and his 7-4, 290-pound teammate, Boban Marjanović, in the same scuffle. The Serbian big man, who played a villain in “John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum” and starred in the below fight scene with Keanu Reeves, garnered votes as well.

“John Wick 3,” one Marjanović voter said in explaining his choice. “It’s not like he can fight, but he’s huge.”

You may have noticed Wembanyama received a vote for the player guys would least like to fight. Picking Wembanyama seemed like an iffy choice considering how thin he is. But, sure enough, Wemby garnered the player’s vote. The reasoning? He would have a massive reach advantage.

Advertisement

Do you think MJ’s getting nervous? King James almost took his (player poll) GOAT crown this time around, and he’ll do just that next year if this voting trend continues.

In this endless debate, His Airness has experienced serious slippage for the third consecutive poll. Jordan had a huge edge in 2019 (73 percent to LeBron’s 11.9 percent) and was still nearly doubling him in 2023 (58.3 percent to 33 percent). Now the gap is only 3.8 percent.

It makes some sense, though, as James is doing things at this late stage of his career that players this age have never done. And these many feats, it’s quite clear, are changing the way some players see this debate. Consider the highlights of his past 14 months…

  • Broke Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time scoring record on Feb. 7, 2023
  • Led the Lakers to the West finals three months later
  • Led the Lakers to an (inaugural) In-Season Tournament title in December
  • Became the first player to be named to a 20th All-Star team in February
  • Was one of three players to average at least 25 points, eight assists and seven rebounds this season (the others were Jokić and Dončić)
go-deeper

GO DEEPER

NBA 75: Top 75 NBA players of all time

Advertisement

As one of us wrote when James became the first player to cross the 40,000-point barrier in early March, the constant comparisons do a disservice to both. Their respective journeys have become too different for the discussion to maintain any merit. But James’ ability to remain elite for this long, and to put together this incredible body of NBA work that started during George W. Bush’s first term as U.S. president in 2003, is forever changing the way his career will be remembered.

As a final note here, someone did, in fact, vote for Paul Pierce as the GOAT. (Insert shrug emoji here…)


The folks who run Madison Square Garden call it “The World’s Most Famous Arena” and the “Mecca.” But what sounds like brash marketing hype also matches the opinions of NBA players.

One player responded: “MSG. It’s the Mecca. It’s classic.”

Advertisement

Another who chose the Garden answered: “At MSG and Crypto, there are bright lights and celebrities.”

The Celtics’ arena historically has gotten a lot of praise for its fans, and nothing’s changed this season. One player said: “Crazy atmosphere. Some big sports fans. It’s so loud in there.” Another said he likes facing the Celtics in Boston because he enjoys playing in a “hostile environment.”


The architects who designed Detroit’s Little Caesars Arena, Charlotte’s Spectrum Center and Memphis’ FedExForum shouldn’t feel bad. Those arenas top this list because the home teams in those venues struggled to draw fans this season relative to other clubs.

Little Caesars Arena, which the Pistons share with the NHL’s Detroit Red Wings, “won” this dubious honor even though its average announced crowd was said to be a respectable 18,159 fans per game.

Advertisement

“No fans, no atmosphere at the moment,” one player said.

Another added: “It’s very open. It’s got to be packed out for it to stand out, and that’s just not what it is.”

The Hornets ranked next to last in home attendance this season, prompting one of the players who voted for Spectrum Center to say, “It’s quiet. Good arena. But it’s quiet.”

One of the NBA’s off-court dramas this season swirled in Washington, where Wizards principal owner Ted Leonsis attempted to move the team and the NHL’s Washington Capitals to Alexandria, Va. Leonsis later scuttled those plans after they failed to move forward in Virginia’s legislature, and Leonsis subsequently reached a deal to remain at Capital One Arena and receive $515 million in funding from the local government to upgrade the arena.

Opposing players don’t like the arena much. One of them said: “Just the way it’s built, it’s a very cold arena. It feels like there’s no soul to it. It feels very empty when you’re there — not by how many people are there. There’s no warmth. I don’t really know how to explain it. … As a player, you like to feel enveloped by the crowd. It doesn’t feel like that.”

Advertisement

You may be wondering why Denver’s Ball Arena, where fans have been rocking for years now, ranks seventh in the voting. The answer: the altitude, which is something the Nuggets and NHL’s Colorado Avalanche lean into as a psychological play. When visiting teams’ buses arrive in the arena’s loading dock, players see a sign that says: “Ball Arena WELCOMES YOU TO THE MILE HIGH CITY, ELEVATION 5,280 FEET.”

“Oh my God, that team needs to be moved,” one player said. “The altitude is crazy. I don’t like it at all. Every time I play there, I’m dog-tired.”


This is a case where players’ opinions appear to have changed in one year. Gregg Popovich won this vote last year, followed by runner-up Steve Kerr.

Erik Spoelstra placed third last year, receiving 9.5 percent of the vote, but has since vaulted to the top. He has come a long way in this poll since getting just 1 percent of the vote (12th place) in 2019. Considering that his Heat reached the NBA Finals by way of the Play-In last season, it’s safe to assume that earned him even more respect.

Advertisement

“Just the Heat culture — they’re always competing,” one Spoelstra voter said. “They’re always trying to find a way (to win). I feel like they’re always taking guys that fit their system, and that makes them play very good.”

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

The Tao of Spo: Erik Spoelstra’s compassion, competitiveness and confrontations

Popovich remains highly regarded.

“Pop,” one player answered. “Easy. I love those types of coaches, like Pop and Spo. I would rather you ‘mother—’ me than smile in my face.”

The Knicks’ Josh Hart, who voted for Spoelstra, insisted that he be quoted on the record for this one.

Advertisement

“Spo, hands down,” said Hart, who worked with Spoelstra at the FIBA World Cup tournament last summer when the Heat head coach was a Team USA assistant. “Quote me on that one. F–ing love Spo.”


Few coaches get more out of their teams than Tom Thibodeau does. But no coach gets more grief for it than Thibodeau, either.

Thibodeau’s Knicks finished 50-32 and earned the East’s second seed, but New York’s success this season and his two NBA Coach of the Year awards didn’t seem to matter much to players. He’s been named the coach players least would like to play for in all three polls, with this margin (37.7 percent ahead of Doc Rivers) the largest yet (he was 13.5 percent ahead of Chicago’s Jim Boylen in 2019 and 29.1 percent ahead of Houston’s Stephen Silas last year).

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

Instead of wearing on the Knicks, coach Tom Thibodeau is enhancing them

Advertisement

“I’m too old for those practices,” one player said.

“He’s playing everyone 48 minutes,” another said.

Well, that’s not quite accurate. According to the NBA’s figures, four Knicks players ranked in the top 50 in minutes per game this season: Julius Randle (15th at 35.4 per game), Jalen Brunson (16th at 35.4 per game), Anunoby (35th at 34.0 per game) and Hart (50th at 33.4 per game).


It’s said that the NBA has improved parity in recent years, and that’s true.

Advertisement

But players still think the NBA title race will come down to two teams: the defending champion Nuggets and the team with the league’s best regular-season record, the Celtics.

“Whoever comes out of the East is going to lose to the Western Conference teams,” one player said. “I just think when you look at the landscape out West, the best teams — Denver is my pick. OKC’s too young and they’re not big enough. … The one team that could give (Denver) problems would be the Clippers if they play at their best and they’re healthy, just based on matchups. But continuity in this league is everything, and Denver has it. So that’s my pick.”

Another player who voted for the Nuggets said: “It’s like a factory, plug and play. They play the right way, no matter who’s out there. Shoutout to Jokić.”

Still, Boston was a buzz saw during the regular season, compiling a league-best 64-18 record while finishing first in offensive rating and second in defensive rating.

“When you’ve got Jrue Holiday on the team with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, who are shot makers, he’s a great defender obviously,” one player said. “And with Kristaps Porziņģis, they have got danger everywhere and defensively as well. Also, their fans make it hard to beat them, for sure.”

Advertisement

All things considered, this report card could have been much worse for the refs. In essence, you had 21.9 percent of the players polled indicating that the officiating job was below average this season and 78.1 percent giving a grade of average or better. Given all the high-profile frustration with the officiating on display this season, as well as the midseason change in “points of emphasis” that empowered defenders again and suppressed scoring, no one should be surprised that they didn’t get straight As.

Voters who gave an F

“Sh–, they don’t know if they want us to play or not play.”

Advertisement

“But they good people…”

Voter who gave a D

“It’s a different sense of entitlement that they feel, and they get a little bit more sensitive than they had previously. Some of the missed calls, it’s just like, that’s not OK. And some of them are blatant. It’s not an easy job by any means. (But) I’ve seen better years.”

Voter who gave a C

“The issue is there’s just too much volatility. But also, the inconsistency. I would say there’s eight elite officials, great officials, and then you have the rest of the 50 that are just, you could carry them in. It makes it hard on those guys. There’s eight elite officials who are great at communicating and at officiating, and then there’s four (who can do) one of each, where they can either officiate or they can communicate. And the rest of them are just … bad.”

Advertisement

Voter who gave a B

“I don’t think people realize how hard that job is. All things considered, they’ve done a good job. That’s not a job I would ever want to have. There’s still definitely room for growth, but within the job and what’s asked of them and where the game’s moving, I think they’ve done a great job.”

Voter who gave an A

“They make the calls that the league wants them to make, right? … And now, we’re just adjusting again, because there’s more holding and grabbing now. So they’re allowing stuff now. I guess they just do whatever they’re told.”


Advertisement

What’s more telling? That 46.2 percent of the players gave the commissioner an A or that none of the 130 players who responded gave him a D or an F?

“Some of the things he does, we’re not going to like, but that’s just us as players,” said one of the players who gave Adam Silver an A. “We like to complain about s—. But I think what he’s doing is great for the league. The In-Season Tournament. The Play-In. All this is to build the luster of the league and to build the TV ratings to make sure they’re in a certain place so when it comes time to do this new TV deal, we can do it.”

Another said: “I’d give him an A. The money’s good. The fans are enjoying the games. We’ve got a new In-Season Tournament that everybody looks forward to now, especially because there’s money on the line. I really wanted to win that In-Season Tournament. I had some plans for that money, for real.”

It’s not all perfect, of course.

“Everything is good except the All-Star Game, and that weekend wasn’t great,” said one player who still gave Silver an A. “Other than that, I feel like it’s been entertaining. I feel like the league’s been real competitive.”

Advertisement

One player who gave Silver a B said: “There’s a big disparity with the referees still. Referees aren’t consistent with their integrity, the way they approach you, and the NBA has a huge problem on its hands. That’s the biggest thing in the NBA right now: the referees. Some people get calls and some people don’t get calls. It may be the same (play), but if it’s Trae Young or somebody else, it looks different.”

In terms of criticism for Silver, several players indicated officiating is one of the few areas in which they believe he has fallen short.

“The only reason (I’m giving Silver) a B and not an A is that I’m not sure that players have the liberty to speak out (against referees) the way it should be,” one player said. “I do, to a certain extent, understand why that is, because you’ve got to create a culture of togetherness and can’t just randomly criticize referees and all that stuff. But some of this stuff, especially with referees, they have an ego and they know that so they act a certain way toward you because they know you’ll lose money if you criticize them. … Adam’s doing a great job of maximizing our money in a great way.”


The new collective bargaining agreement between the league and the players, enacted last summer, includes a provision that says players must appear in at least 65 games to be eligible for most end-of-the-season honors, including MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, the All-NBA teams and All-Defensive teams.

Advertisement

From league officials’ perspective, the new rule is designed to get the league’s best players on the court more often. In addition to benefiting the fans who purchase tickets to games, the theory goes that having such a rule will make the league even more attractive to suitors for the upcoming media rights deal.

The rule has come under fire from some players, even though they voted to accept the new CBA. Keep in mind that the rule is one small part of a large, dense document that came as the result of thorough negotiations between the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association that represents them. Neither side got everything it wanted.

But still, we wondered how players feel about the rule now. In the wake of the sensitive Embiid situation earlier this season, when the reigning MVP was roundly ridiculed for missing a nationally televised Jan. 27 game at Denver because of a left knee injury only to get hurt three days later when Jonathan Kuminga fell on the knee in a game at Golden State, the discussion about whether the rule was putting players in harm’s way was front and center for the second half of the season.

Exactly half of the players who answered the question said they’re against the rule.

“Obviously, I get why they do it in terms of wanting guys to play,” said one player who is against the rule. “But I also think guys will force themselves to play through things sometimes — obviously, the Embiid thing that happened, whether he was right or not to play. I just think it gets risky for guys. If you’re talking about MVP, I think for everyone in the league it’s clear who the MVP is, whether they play 65 or 82 games. From a player’s point of view, I think guys know who the MVP is. It’s always going to be whatever the top two or three or whoever those guys are. So, I just think it’s forcing guys to play sometimes when there (are) legitimate reasons (not to play).”

Advertisement

Some of the players against the 65-game rule said they’re in favor of having a rule but would prefer the threshold be set at a lower number of games.

One player said: “I think that’s a lot of games, honestly, when you think about how the game is played. Back in the day, guys would play 80-some games. They would walk the ball up and post up. But we’re non-stop, and there’s a lot of wear and tear So, guys like Embiid, guys that are superstars in this league, there’s a situation where they might have to fight through games to get to a threshold to get an award. It’s kind of tough, kind of bulls— sometimes. But what if one of those guys, they’re at 60 games, they’ve got a bad knee injury and, in one of those five games, tears his meniscus because he’s trying to get an award? I don’t like that.”

Nearly 45 percent of the players who responded said they were in favor of the rule.

“Sixty-five games, that gives you a 17-game cushion to miss if you need rest or things like that,” one of the rule’s supporters said. “I’m all for it. You’ve got to be out there on the floor if you can.”


Advertisement

Let’s face it, folks: During the 2023-24 college basketball season, no player was more compelling than Clark. And when we were enjoying March Madness, the women’s NCAA Tournament seemed to have more engaging storylines and colorful characters than the men’s.

This got us wondering: Is women’s basketball having a moment within the NBA too?

The answer appears to be a resounding “yes!”

In our survey, Clark not only ranked as the second-favorite current non-NBA athlete, but women’s basketball players — Sabrina Ionescu, Kelsey Plum, Angel Reese, JuJu Watkins, A’ja Wilson and Clark — were named on 12.2 percent of all NBA players’ ballots. Only NFL players were named on more ballots (39.1 percent of them) than women’s basketball players.

“She’s unreal,” one NBA player said about Clark, who went first overall last week to the Indiana Fever in the 2024 WNBA Draft. “I’m excited to see how her journey pans out and what she does for the women’s game.”

Advertisement
go-deeper

GO DEEPER

Caitlin Clark’s whirlwind WNBA Draft week just the start for the in-demand rookie

Now that Clark has finished her college career, who, if anyone, will become the most popular NCAA women’s player? Maybe Watkins, the dynamic 6-foot-2 guard who just finished her first season at USC.

One NBA player said: “Her game is so pretty to watch. She’s so fluid, smooth. … I hadn’t watched a full game (of hers) until tournament time. I’d seen little clips and highlights and stuff. But watching her against UConn the other night, she definitely made a big fan out of me.”

Soccer players — none of them American — were named on the third-highest number of ballots, coming in at 11.3 percent.

Given that the NFL dominates the North American sports landscape, it should come as no surprise that it dominated our poll. Jackson, the Baltimore Ravens quarterback who won his second NFL MVP last season, has a bunch of fans in the NBA.

Advertisement

“He’s one of the best QBs ever since he came into the league,” one player said. “His running ability is crazy.”

But it was one other NFL quarterback — a quarterback far less talented than Jackson — who drew one of the funniest responses in our entire poll: Cousins, the former Commanders and Vikings quarterback who recently signed a four-year, $180 million contract to join the Atlanta Falcons, with $100 million of that total guaranteed.

When an NBA player named Cousins as his favorite current non-NBA athlete, the response elicited a dumbfounded “Why?” from one writer from The Athletic.

The NBA player said: “Kirk Cousins because he gets paid and doesn’t have to win or don’t have to do anything and made $400 million off of one playoff win. Legend.”

(Illustration by John Bradford / The Athletic; top photos of Rudy Gobert, Victor Wembanyama and Adam Silver: Kenny Giarla, Ronald Cortes, Justin Tafoya / Getty Images)

Advertisement

Continue Reading

Culture

How the NFL views the NIL era: 'This whole draft landscape has changed'

Published

on

How the NFL views the NIL era: 'This whole draft landscape has changed'

The bright lights and quarterback debates will be there as always when the NFL Draft starts Thursday night. But something’s different this year, which will become more evident as the rounds turn and we get into Day 3 on Saturday.

Only 58 underclassmen have declared for this week’s draft — down from 130 players in 2021 and the smallest number of underclassmen since 2011. For those in NFL circles, the introduction of NIL money is a clear factor.

“It’s crazy to fathom that some of these guys made more money in college than they will in the NFL,” Green Bay Packers coach Matt LaFleur said.

Players started signing marketing deals after the Supreme Court’s 2021 ruling that collegiate athletes are entitled to payment for their “name, image and likeness.” The pandemic-shortened season in 2020 has also played a part in players staying in school, as they were granted an extra year of eligibility. And then the NCAA allowed players to transfer without sitting out a year.

GO DEEPER

Advertisement

How name, image and likeness is impacting NFL draft decisions

NIL payments are not public figures, but most players who will be selected in the top three rounds this week have money in the bank now. USC quarterback Caleb Williams, the projected top pick to the Chicago Bears, has been estimated to have earned around $10 million while in school. He may be an outlier, but NFL coaches are noticing a difference in their interactions with draft prospects in the NIL era.

“You look for the guys that have that look in their eye,” Las Vegas Raiders coach Antonio Pierce said. “You can really feel it, and you can also see the guys that are entitled, that have NIL money, which is an issue because they come in privileged. They have money in the bank.

“When I came in the league, I was broke. These guys already got goddamn jewelry on and the Louis Vuitton rocking already.”


Las Vegas Raiders coach Antonio Pierce wants to see players enter the NFL with the same type of competitive edge that he possessed. (Steve Marcus / Getty Images)

Pierce wants players with an edge, and he feels that already having money in the bank from college might affect how hard they are willing to work to crack a starting lineup in the NFL. Compounding that problem, Minnesota Vikings coach Kevin O’Connell said it’s harder to know how players respond to adversity when so many hit the transfer portal at the drop of a hat.

Advertisement

“They already have money in their pocket, so you see some guys not going as hard in the pre-draft process,” agent Ron Slavin said. “And no one is eating those packs of ramen noodles anymore.”

The NFL minimum salary for a rookie in 2024 is $795,000. Players who are drafted sign standard four-year deals — contracts for first-round picks also include a fifth-year option — that are scaled based on the draft slot. The slotted deal for the No. 1 pick — presumably Williams — is $38.5 million over four years. By the start of the second round, the four-year value dips to under $10 million. From about the fourth round on, players make an average of roughly $1 million per season on their rookie deals.

And that’s where there appears to be a huge drop-off in player quality in this year’s draft.

“Clubs are saying that this is a really good draft through 150 picks, and then after that it falls off a cliff,” agent Steve Caric said.

New York Giants general manager Joe Schoen said Thursday that, according to the team’s assistant director of player personnel, Dennis Hickey, 170 players with draftable grades returned to school this year.

Advertisement

“Because of COVID partly and NIL, this whole draft landscape has changed,” Baltimore Ravens GM Eric DeCosta said. “There’s less draftable players, less underclassmen.”

“All those guys stayed in school for NIL money,” Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy said. “You’re going to see teams drafting players late that they usually sign as priority free agents.”

Vikings GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah said players he has been scouting for years still are not in the draft.

“It’s a supply and demand issue,” he said. “Defensive line was apparently a big issue in college, and a lot of those guys got a lot of money to go back to college. And so that’s gonna affect our league and the depth of that position and different things.”

NFL teams will likely spend the run-up to the draft looking to package fifth-, sixth- and seventh-round picks and move up.

Advertisement

“We’ve talked about the idea of, (in) the later rounds of the draft, if there’s nobody there that you covet, potentially trading that pick for a better pick,” DeCosta said.


The feeling around the NFL is the quality of draft prospects drops after this year’s fourth round, in part because so many players elected to stay in school. (Michael Wade / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Jason Belzer, the CEO and co-founder of Student Athlete NIL (SANIL), manages more than 30 booster collectives for some of the bigger Power 5 schools.

“I think the NIL has affected the NFL considerably, but for the better,” Belzer said. “You have more and more players that are choosing to stay in college football and develop and get paid, rather than go into the draft. There are multiple quarterbacks that made over a million dollars that are not going to get that kind of money because they’re going to be late-round picks. The NIL is the best thing that ever happened to the NFL when it comes to development.”

He estimates that 40 college players made more than the 2023 minimum NFL salary of $750,000, with a lot more making $500,000, including a tackle projected to go in the sixth round this week. Belzer said that roughly five players per Power 5 roster make more than $100,000.

For late-round picks who aren’t guaranteed to make the roster, the decision to return to school can be quite easy.

Advertisement

“Getting drafted is a significant honor no matter where you go — even the sixth or seventh round — but if you’re a seventh-round pick, you’re getting, like, a $90,000 signing bonus, and that’s the only guaranteed part of your contract,” agent Eugene Lee said. “Compare that to a school where you have a front-line starter at a P4 school and you say, ‘Hey, come back! We’ll give you $350,000.’ It’s just like, ‘OK.’ You take out a loss-of-value policy and there you go.”

The later-round prospects simply are taking advantage of a chance to have their cake and eat it too.

“A fourth-round pick, for example, has a chance to go back to school and get better, move his draft status up and then make more money next year,” Caric said. “And as insurance, he can make what he would make with a Day 3 signing bonus thanks to NIL and coming back to school.”

More collegiate experience can be a good thing, especially at the quarterback position. Jayden Daniels played in 55 games at Arizona State and LSU, almost double the number of games North Carolina’s Drake Maye played in (28).

Advertisement

“We don’t have a minor league, and those extra years is maybe a couple of minor-league years,” Adofo-Mensah said. “And that also depends on where they’re playing and the system, how relatable that is to our game.”

The Vikings, who hold picks Nos. 11 and 23 in the first round, could trade up to fill their quarterback need or just stay put and use their first pick on the best player available and the latter pick on someone like Oregon QB Bo Nix. Nix played a whopping 61 games at Auburn and Oregon and thinks his experience gives him an edge over the other potential first-round quarterbacks.

“Repetition is the mother of all skill, so the more you can do something, the better you become at it,” Nix said at the combine. “I was able to prove that as the years went on, getting better and better, learning new things, playing in different systems — five in five years is a lot, but that’s a lot of fun. And I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”

Nix is 24 years old, which could impact his perceived upside.


Bo Nix’s age (24) could work against him in the draft process, but he thinks his experience is a benefit. (Zac BonDurant / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

“I don’t think it’s a bad thing if you come out a little bit older — and maybe even a better thing,” Raiders GM Tom Telesco said. “You’ve got more experience under your belt, more maturity at that position. Other positions, it may or may not matter.

Advertisement

“Typically as a scouting staff, we always say we’d like a younger player because the guy has a chance to develop, maybe has a little bit more ceiling. Is that true or not? I’m not really sure. But I do know that we’re going to have some players coming in the league that have good experience and may be ready to play a little bit earlier than maybe in times past.”

Nix could have entered the draft last year but stayed for a chance to win a national championship and had the cushion NIL allows.

That experience edge might only hold for quarterbacks, though.

“I can’t tell you how many conversations I have had in the last couple of weeks where I ask a club about Player A or Player B; the older age is always a minus,” Caric said. “They obviously want to draft someone they’re going to have for more than one contract. When you come into the league at 24 years old with these super-senior years, that’s not as attractive as the 21-year-old.”

Alabama offensive tackle JC Latham was able to enjoy a different college lifestyle than previous players but said the extra money also helped him prepare for the NFL.

Advertisement

“It definitely has you grow up,” Latham said at the combine. “You gotta understand that you’re getting more money now, so there’s gonna be a bigger target on your back.”

It can also help players learn to manage their money before their first NFL rookie camp.

“If you want to create more wealth for yourself and your family, you gotta really understand how to maneuver it and manage it,” Latham said. “Definitely puts you in the mindset to really understand what’s going on around you and how (you can) create your wealth early.”


All these players staying in school have to come out at some point, so the number of draftable players will grow again next year.

And GMs and coaches still need to draft good players to keep their jobs — owners don’t want to hear an excuse about the NIL impact after another losing season.

“I do think — especially in the early rounds — it’s a very good draft,” Denver Broncos GM George Paton said.

And though the NFL can wring its hands a bit about NIL, it doesn’t change how it watches a player’s game tape and decides who to invest in.

Advertisement

“It hasn’t changed our preparation that much,” said first-year Seattle Seahawks coach Mike Macdonald, a former defensive coordinator at Michigan. “I was ready for it since we had it down back at Michigan.

“The only thing is that some of these players are going to have to take a pay cut to play in the league.”

— Staff writer Tashan Reed contributed to this report.

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

2024 NFL Draft rankings: Dane Brugler breaks down the top 300 prospects

(Top illustration: Dan Golfarb / The Athletic; top photos of Roger Goodell and Caleb Williams: Rich Graessle / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images and Michael Reaves / Getty Images)

Advertisement

Continue Reading

Trending